Saturday, May 28, 2011

Nature vs. Pavement: Round 6

This Nature Vs. Pavement shot got me thinking about whether the relationship between an urban tree and its pavement isn't more of a symbiotic one. Here, I think the tree needed a little space, but liked the support of the Bluestone slab on its root structure. And clearly, that Bluestone enjoys the shade and beauty of the tree.

Washington Avenue between Willoughby Street and DeKalb Avenue

Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Beloved Bronx

In Casablanca (1942), there's an exchange between a Nazi officer and our hero, Rick:

Major Strasser: Are you one of those people who cannot imagine the Germans in their beloved Paris?
Rick: It's not particularly my beloved Paris.
Major Strasser: How about New York?
Rick: Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade.

I don't think I'm the only one who always imagined Bogie was referring to the Bronx, which has a reputation for being our toughest and grittiest borough. It's a great line, because, well, wouldn't we all like to see Hitler get his ass kicked in the South Bronx? But it got me thinking that Paris oddly has something fundamentally in common with the Bronx: topography.

Paris' natural high point is Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement, crowned with the Sacre-Coeur Basilica. To reach the basilica, you can either be a tremendous dork and take this little white Disney-esque trolley up the hill, or you can climb hundreds of steps. But steps are something you see throughout Montmartre, because even in the residential areas the elevation change between parallel streets can be dramatic.

The Bronx's high point is in the western part of the borough in Van Cortlandt Park, and throughout the area you will also find steep staircases that traverse the terrain. As in Montmartre, these "step streets" actually extend mapped roadways and are endlessly frustrating to motorists unfamiliar with the area. It just goes to show that despite our prevailing perceptions of the Bronx, it has its own je ne sais quoi!

Left: Montmartre
Right: Bronx (photo courtesy of sixes & sevens

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Philly the Philodendron

During my junior year of college, now seven years ago, I welcomed my first house plant into a tiny one-bedroom I shared with three other women. My parents purchased the philodendron at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, and I dubbed her "Philly the Philodendron." Philly has lived in four different apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn with various roommates and light levels. She suffered set-backs, like the time she was fried by a prematurely functioning radiator or when the shock of transplantation to a larger home was overwhelming. And she put up with neglect. But she always muddles through, reborn after a hair cut and some R&R. There's a lesson there.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sukkah City

Earlier this week, an old friend and I wandered through Union Square taking in this year's finalists in the Sukkah City architectural competition. For those of you not "in the know," a sukkah is a temporary structure built for the Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot to commemorate the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert following their liberation from slavery in Egypt.

There are an elaborate set of talmudic rules in constructing a sukkah. For example, the roof must be made using the leaves or branches of a tree or plant and be sufficiently permeable so that one can see the stars at night. Also, on the stranger end of the spectrum, a whale or living elephant may be used to make the walls. (I laugh, but I've been told it's not much different from the City's Building Code.)

There's been some debate about how kosher this year's finalists actually are, but it's fascinating how much they varied in building materials and design. My favorite, and incidentally the winner of the competition, was "Fractured Bubble" by Queens-based designers Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan. This sukkah was fashioned from phragmites (an invasive marsh grass) and looked like a cross between a Pieter Bruegel painting and, as my friend put it, a really bad hair day.

What I like about the tradition of building sukkahs is the way it acknowledges how we can be both dependent on wilderness and at its mercy. Forty years in the desert doesn't sound like a party, but the Israelites worked with what they had and muddled through with a little help from upstairs (if you go in for that).

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tornadoes Vs. Trees

I would be remiss if I didn't address the immense damage to the urban forest as a result of the two tornadoes that ripped through New York City on Thursday evening. The storm was brief, but devastating. I was astonished at how dark it got and then realized that the streetlights hadn't yet turned on. Then it hailed and everything went white. In the aftermath, thousands of the city's trees are damaged or destroyed. Such loss.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fairwell and Adieu to You, Fair Spanish Ladies

I blame it on Jaws, but whenever I'm in a body of natural water, my flight response kicks in the second any fish or, let's face it, piece of seaweed comes anywhere near me. I also have an all-consuming fear of suspicious dark objects in the water, which usually turn out to be rocks. Well, it could have been a man-eater.

Despite my Spielberg-induced neurosis, I'm excited to report that, as a part of the effort to restore the Bronx River's ecosystem, the Parks Department's Natural Resources Group (NRG) has reintroduced two types of herring to the river.
The alewife and blue herring are diadromous fish, meaning that they live in salt water, but migrate to fresh water to spawn. The Bronx River, New York
City's only freshwater river, was prime spawning ground for the herring until access was compromised by the construction of several dams beginning in the 17th Century. (Just think what would happen to Park Slope if subway service was disbanded – adios triple-wide strollers.) The dams are here to stay, but NRG will be implementing fish ladders – which are exactly what they sound like – to allow passage over the dam so the herring can successfully get it on!

"Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water..."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Draw the Green Curtain

There are few things less appealing than razor wire, but then I suppose that's the point. Razor wire speaks volumes -- it says, "keep out" with sharp edges, but also suggests indifference and uncertainty. Because razor wire is cheap and ugly. It is the manifestation of urban neglect. It's what makes people cross to the other side of the street.

But what happens when nature takes over, enveloping the cruel metal with tangles of green vines, transforming the spiraling razor wire into a trellis? I'm awed by this phenomenon. As we
know, the woods have long represented an escape from the complexities and ugliness of urban civilization. To me, the vines are an envoy of the woods, shielding us from the harshest of realities, softening the sharpest of edges.